Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The first daughter in Oaxaca

Oaxaca has been much in the news this week, both for the shaking of the earth and the earth-shaking news that President Obama's oldest daughter Malia was visiting.
Long before these momentous events, Santo Tomas Jalieza, just south of the city of Oaxaca was famous for its cotton sashes, belts, purses, and tabletop runners -- all woven on traditional Mesoamerican backstrap looms.

Girls, even as young as President Obama's younger daughter, Sasha, already master the craft.  Backstrap looms have no frame or structure.  One end is tied to a tree or pole and the other tied around the weaver's waist.  Seated on the ground, the weaver moves closer and closer to the other end of the loom as she works her weaving.  At first glance designs appear to be geometric. A closer look reveals a variety of discernable insects, flowers, turkeys, birds, deer, fish, and vases.

Families sell their cotton weavings in the town's market on the south side of the plaza.  Women of Santo Tomas produce and sell their products as individuals or family-based units, but they cooperate as a community.  Customers make selections based on quality, design, or even the captivating personality of the vendor.  Prices are the same at every stall in the market.

Even the playing field with regard to one’s location within the market is leveled. In public markets is it best to be at the entry?  Or, is it better to be farther into the market?  As a customer do you buy at the first stall?  Or, do you go further into the market making your purchase after seeing various vendors?  Perhaps marketing specialists know the answer.   Recognizing there are better locations than others, women of Santo Tomas Jalieza hold an annual raffle of the designated spots under the market's roof -- that's all there is, a roof; no walls.

Friday is the best sales day in Santo Tomas -- that's market day in Ocotlan.   Santo Tomas is two kilometers off the road between Oaxaca and Ocotlan.  A stop in Santo Tomas is included in most of Oaxaca's day tours to Ocotlan's market.

Other days of the week clientele is so sparse that rather than spending the day attending stalls at an empty market, the women of Santo Tomas have developed a method to be alerted when customers arrive.  A brass bell hangs from a horizontal beam near the market.  Tour guides and group leaders know to ring the bell insistently; within ten minutes a market is set up.

A number of years ago I arrived with a group and noticed a Japanese camera crew near the market -- filled with empty display racks and no vendors.  I suspected they didn't know about the bell.  I got out of my van and rang the bell; sure enough within minutes women arrived carrying bundles of cotton sashes, belts, and purses.  They draped them over the racks The market was open, ready for business!

Several months later I received word from Masaki Kimura, a Japanese friend and artist, telling me he would be returning to Cuernavaca.  He had studied Spanish at Cemanahuac  and exhibited his work while here.  His letter said he’d planned to go to Spain that year but a television program had prompted him to change his mind and return to Mexico.  On arrival he played a recording of a Japanese television quiz show.  Two teams were shown a video clip of a strange event.  Winning the prize required accurately explaining what was happening.  Neither team came up with the right answer for why the gringo stepped out of a van to ring a bell in a small Mexican town.  After both teams gave up, the video showed women of Santo Tomas rushing to set up their market stalls.

Santo Tomas Jalieza's signature cotton weavings are also sold in the city of Oaxaca's craft stores, and by vendors in its zocalo.  Sales have been very slow for the last couple of years.  The U.S. State Department's Travel Advisory is scaring away their customers.  Few school and university programs from the USA are traveling to Mexico.   I'm hoping that the silver lining of last week's earthquakes will be an objective view in future advisories.  As a result of the earthquake the White House released word that Malia Obama was unscathed and enjoying her trip to Oaxaca as a member of Sidwell Friends School's annual service-learning project.

Some will say the Secret Service detail accompanying Malia would also provide security for the entire group.  However there was no certainty her parents would allow her to participate in her school's trip to Mexico. It was scheduled with or without Malia. 
It is heartwarming to know a member of the first family in the USA will report home the wonders of Mexico, the warmth of its people, the needs they have.  She will tell her story of participation in a program meant to alleviate some of those needs -- needs most of us who read The News know from first-hand experience.
I wonder about the ethics of those who write the State Department advisories being the same people who benefit from substantial so-called "hazardous duty" salary bonuses. 

I hope the Secret Service detail did not sanitize Malia's trip to the point of not allowing her to acquire sashes, belts, purses from Santo Tomas Jalieza.  Every reader who’s enjoyed coffee, or comida, in a restaurant facing the zocalo in Oaxaca has been similarly enticed.  For years I’ve worn a treasured belt decorated with a sash from Santo Tomas.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Classic Mexican Timing

I’ve had time on my mind lately.  It’s caused me to think about some interesting colloquial expressions for time -- Mexico has some unusual ones.  In English, I could say, “We meet here, on page nineteen of The News’ Living section, once a week, on Tuesdays, and I hope to see you back here every week” -- all the while, thinking of seven days.   However if I were speaking in Spanish I'd likely say, "We meet every eight days" or  "cada ocho días."
If we were to meet every other day, I’d be thinking of the day after tomorrow.  I wouldn't say how many days that will be -- at least if speaking in English.  However, in Mexican Spanish I'd say "cada tercer día" -- every third day.  Again, counting days by including the day on which we are speaking as well as the day of the recurring event.  I have an English-speaking friend who thought it strange her dog's medicine was ordered for every third day.  Of course the vet intended for the medicine to be administered every other day.

English has a name for a two-week time period. We think of fourteen days when saying "a fortnight".  In Spanish we'd say "quince dias" -- fifteen days. Again, adding the day on which we are starting the count to the total.

So, to be consistent, if we were to say in Mexican Spanish "let's meet in three weeks," you would think we’d say, "Let's meet in twenty-two days."  But that would not be the way a Mexican would measure that period of time.  A Mexican would say, "Veámonos en veinte dias" or “Let's see each other in twenty days.”  Instead of including the day on which we start the count, as in each of the previous examples, it is as if we have left out both the initial day and the day of our intended meeting.

Perhaps saying "twenty-two days" would be cumbersome but it is my theory that "veinte dias," used as a time period, is a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican calendar element -- the veintena -- that slipped into Mexican Spanish.  Though not a pre-Hispanic word, it defines a 20-day time period in the pre-hispanic calendar.

Ancient Mesoamericans developed and used a vigesimal, base-twenty, system of mathematics.  It is natural and logical that their calendars made use of twenty as a natural grouping of periods of time, be they days of a month or longer periods.  With the exception of the year (not divisible by twenty), each named grouping of a period of time is twenty times larger than the previous period.   This is consistent with our calendar and the base-ten number system.  Our units of time are each ten times larger.  A year, a decade, a century, a millennia, ten millennia are contemporary divisions of time.

The Mesoamerican system for recording time made use of two calendars – a 365-day solar calendar combined with a 260-day ritual calendar.  Mesoamerican languages each had different names for the two calendars as well as for their internal divisions of time.  Haab is a Maya name for the 365-day solar calendar.  In the Haab there are 18 veintenas of 20 days.   The five extra days are “nameless” days.  It was not good luck to be born on a “nameless” day.   Tzolkin is the 260-day ritual calendar.  It, too, makes use of twenty-day time periods.

A quincena (fifteen day time period) is a common salary payment period.  Payments are usually on the fifteenth and thirtieth of each month -- days on which banks and supermarkets are crowded.  Cuernavaca looks forward to increased tourism income when quincenas are paid on a Friday (yes, people refer to their salary as their "quincena").  With money in their pockets, residents of Mexico City are much more likely to set off on a weekend mini-vacation.

And, of course, in the political world, the important time period is the sexenio which refers to the six-year presidential administration.  With no presidential re-election allowed, each six-year time period is easily remembered by the recalling who was president.  In people's minds each sexenio takes on the personality of the president in office making it easy to associate events with dates.  This year will be the end of one sexenio and the beginning of another.

I’d enjoy hearing readers’ time stories and anecdotes about time misunderstandings.  If you have other time expressions to share those would be fun too.

Nos vemos en ocho días.





Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Worship at Teotihuacan

When I take study groups to the grand archeological site of Teotihuacan I usually make a stop at Cuicuilco, the oldest pyramid in the Valley of Mexico, and the place where Teotihuacan's story begins.

Museums and archeological sites generally try to portray themselves as friendly places; most do a pretty good job of welcoming us before giving us their invariable list of "don’ts".  In contrast, Cuicuilco, on the southern edge of Mexico City, doesn't even say "Welcome" before telling us all the things we can’t do.

Outside the site is an Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) banner that says "Attention" followed by a long list of prohibited acts.  Along with the “usuals,” no alcoholic beverages, no spray paint, no indelible felt tip pens, no high heeled shoes, all of which are meant to protect the archeological site, there are also the "unusuals", no baby carriages, no parasols, no backpacks or large bundles, no musical instruments.

Then there are those that seem to border on the absurd -- it is prohibited to light fires, liberate evil spirits, heal anyone, make gifts or donations of any kind.   Since it’s a federal zone no money can be handled.

Without coming out and saying so, the last grouping of "don'ts" effectively prohibits religious worship.

 Being a federal entity in a country whose constitution guarantees religious liberty INAH cannot restrict worship on federal sites.  It can however prohibit all those things that accompany worship -- music, incense, donations, healing rites -- a response to a growing religious movement which worships at archeological sites.

Most INAH archeologists consider themselves social scientists and archeological sites as scientific research areas.  Mesoamerican religion is something they study objectively, as a phenomenon of the past.

That view is increasingly put to the test at Cuicuilco, especially during the month of March.
Cuicuilco's visitors are required to register upon entering the site.  Until recently we signed in on a form that asked our reason for visiting.  There were many days those writing "meditation" -- a euphemism for worship -- outnumbered those with an archeological interest.

Usually dressed in white, sometimes with a red headband, those listing "meditation" as their reason arrive in groups of five to fifty, each with their own leader.  They refrain from labeling themselves but those not part of that movement usually refer to those in white as members of the "Mexicanidad" -- a term I also use.

As the name implies, the Mexicanidad draws from prehispanic Mesoamerican religion but members of it accept a revolutionary idea within religions -- the idea that God has acted among all peoples on this earth and there are valid religious ideas to be drawn from every religion.  Meetings, usually carried out with all participants in a circle sometimes standing sometimes seated on the ground involve instruction and teaching by the leader, meditation, an invocation with prayers addressed to the four cardinal points, the center of the sky, and Mother Earth, usually accompanied by the sound of a conch shell trumpet.

The Mexicanidad is very much an urban middle-class movement which contrasts with the more Indigenous, highly disciplined, Conchero movement.  The Concheros' wear prehispanic-type dress and make offerings of dance accompanied by drums and the characteristic stringed instrument made from the concha, or shell, of an armadillo.
Concheros are frequently seen at sacred sites on which Catholic churches were built shortly after the conquest while the Mexicanidad prefers archeological sites.

Members of both movements will be converging on Cuicuilco, Teotihuacan, and other archeological sites on the vernal equinox.   Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun will be visited by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, many of whom will be dressed in white and who will ascend the pyramid.  Once on top, many will perform rituals in addition to raising their arms to absorb the special energy they believe to be present.  INAH recognizes this phenomenon is too large to stop; Teotihuacan will be open from before dawn till dark. 

It's hard to know how attendance this year will be affected by changes in the calendar. March 21st is Benito Juarez's birthday, but it is now observed on a Monday. Previously the holiday made it easy to celebrate the equinox without missing a day of work. Nevertherless expect huge crowds at Teotihuacan and smaller yet impressive numbers at Cuicuilco.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Chichen-Itzá Pilgrimage

Tens of thousands of people all over the world are finalizing their travel plans and getting ready to travel to Chichen-Itzá in order to be there on the spring equinox.  They'll watch a magnificent light and shadow spectacle on the side of the north-facing stairway of the Castillo, a temple most probably dedicated to Kukulcan, the Maya version of Quetzalcoatl.

The sun, on its apparent trip north, will pass over the equator in the early morning hours of March 20.  That evening, as it sets over the Yucatan Peninsula, the north-westernmost corner of the stepped pyramid will cast shadows on the outside of the 'banister' of one of the four stairways leading to the top of the pyramid.  A series of illuminated triangles will be projected on the side of the stairway.  The serpent's head at the base of the stairway will be fully illuminated -- the triangles will become the serpent's body.

If you're going, I'd suggest you do so two days before or after the equinox.  The effect will be similar and you'll be able to witness it without the crowds and masters of ceremonies sent out by the tourism department with loudspeakers to 'improve' on what the sun and ancient Maya astronomers joined forces in creating.

Take a small scissor legged folding chair or a beach towel to lie on and be comfortable.  It takes a while for the whole event to play out.  If you're not comfortable it might seem like Mr. Sun has gotten stuck in the sky.

Only two of the Castillo's four stairways have been restored.  Fortunately one of them hosts the light and shadow event.  As is characteristic of prominent post-classic temples, it sits right in the middle of a huge plaza.  When Chichen-Itza flourished it had a large population and certainly attracted large numbers of people on the equinoxes.  They most probably watched and experienced the event in awe and silence.

As the light and shadow event plays out on the Castillo there will be another light and shadow event at Chichen-Itza, at the very same time, which probably won't be witnessed by anyone.  However it will occur -- even if no one is there to see it -- in a very small space in the uppermost room of the Caracol, which probably functioned as an astronomical observatory.

Three surviving windows face into an observation chamber at the top of what was a round tower but now looks more like an upended conch shell.  The windows are square (about 50x50 cm.) with very long windowsills (about two meters).  Long windowsills restrict the view -- nevertheless a considerable expanse of horizon can be seen.  One vernal equinox, while the crowd was watching the light show on the Castillo, I was the only one in the observatory chamber of the Caracol.  The setting sun created a shadow on half the windowsill leaving the other half illuminated.  A diagonal line separated light from shadow -- a line from the right hand corner on the inside, to the left hand corner on the outside of the windowsill.  Perfectly straight -- a precise line of sight.  Marvelous. Each windowsill provides two horizontal lines of sight.  Different nights offer different events to be seen.  Modern astronomers have identified twenty astronomical events that can be seen through the Caracol's surviving windows.

Last week I described Xochicalco's observatory which allows for focused views of heavenly objects -- something the Caracol observatory cannot do since it is set up for naked eye observations along designated sightlines.  Xochicalco's observatory restricts viewing to one spot in the sky while the Caracol tower offered a full circle of views of the horizon through its multiple windows. In a simlar vein, though Xochicalco has only one observation shaft, I suspect that doorways -- now filled with rubble -- opening off the tunnel leading to the observation chamber accessed other observation rooms where shafts point to different spots in the sky.

Xochicalco's astronomers could not move their focused telescopes.  But, could they move themselves to another room -- for a different view into the sky -- just as astronomers in the Caracol could move to another window? Xocicalco's observatory, the Caracol's observation windows, and the light and shadow spectacle on the Castillo are very different yet each served ancient astronomer-priests in verifying that their calendar was synchronized with the council of the gods. That, in turn, confirmed that their offerings were being delivered to their gods at the appropriate moments in time.

Of the three, the Castillo required the greatest coordination of architects and astronomer-priests in its design.  Unlike Xochicalco's observatory and the Caracol's windows, the Castillo offered a public event for the whole population.  It is still fulfilling that function today.